board members
Gov. Kevin Stitt signs five agency reform bills Wednesday, March 13, 2019, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (Tres Savage)

With a few strokes of his pen, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed bills today reforming the oversight of five key state agencies. The agencies are:

  • Oklahoma Health Care Authority
  • Oklahoma Department of Transportation
  • Oklahoma Department of Corrections
  • Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs
  • Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Stitt will now be able to hire and fire the directors of those agencies, and his signatures also functionally terminated the service of 40 Oklahomans previously appointed to those agencies’ boards and commissions.

“There are various legal opinions as to what happens with these boards upon the bills being signed into law,” Deputy Secretary of State Donelle Harder said Tuesday in her office. “We are taking a very cautionary approach and preparing that these boards will have to be immediately reappointed — or have new people appointed — once the legislation is signed into law.”

Stitt said appointments will come soon.

“We’re going to let everybody come back and reinterview, and we are not going to be heavy-handed in that process,” he said.

Before signing the bills, Stitt said the reforms fulfill a campaign promise that Oklahomans elected him to achieve.

“Now the hard work comes, and we’ve got to hire the right people,” Stitt said. “I’m super excited about that.”

Awaiting members, new boards set to meet soon

Each of those agencies will now have a nine-member board or commission, some of which will meet later this month. With current membership numbers in parentheses, the agency governing bodies and their next scheduled meetings are:

“By the time that [those boards] have meetings, we will have our people ready to go,” said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC). “If you’re on that board and you want to stay, you need to be making your case to the Pro Temp and the Governor and the House because they all are going to have appointees.”

Echols and Harder both said conversations about board appointments are underway.

“A lot of people are very interested in staying and serving the governor now under his appointment, so we have been working through the process of getting people in place so we can immediately either reappoint or make some new appointments so there is not a disruption,” Harder said.

Echols said he imagines several current board members will be reappointed.

“This wasn’t a move to get rid of people on the boards. It was a move to make government in general more responsive,” Echols said. “The House, Senate or the Governor could immediately reappoint everyone and then take time and as they want to replace them replace them. That’s the key. These all serve ‘at will.'”

Under the reforms signed Wednesday by Stitt, the Senate will hold confirmation hearings over agency director appointments, and the House will have the authority to begin impeachment proceedings against those directors.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) said he hopes the Legislature can continue working well together to change the status quo.

“Oklahoma’s motto is ‘Labor Conquers All,’ but for the last 20 or 30 years, it might as well have been ‘Let’s just keep doing it the way we’ve always done it,'” Treat said.

Stitt expressed disappointment that Democrats in the Legislature did not support the five agency reform bills.

“That means that they think everything was working perfectly. But we know there wasn’t the right transparency and accountability,” Stitt said.

Asked what he has learned about state agencies in his first two months on the job, Stitt praised “great people in state government.

“To me, we just haven’t had the right vision, the right structure,” Stitt said. “We haven’t defined success. We haven’t cascaded our message all the way through our organization down to the front-line employees.”

(Update: This story was updated at 3:38 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, to include additional comments from Gov. Kevin Stitt.)